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Rutgers is alive and well in Patriots’ secondary

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Rutgers products Devin McCourty, Logan Ryan and Duron Harmon accounted for three interceptions on Saturday night in Foxborough.

There once were the likes of Alex Silvestro and Justin Francis, Tiquan Underwood and Mark Harrison, Kevin Haslam and Scott Vallone, Brandon Jones and Steve Beauharnais, Tim Wright and Kevin Snyder. There was even Quentin Gause.

But three Rutgers products remain in the New England Patriots’ fold in January of 2017.

And that’s if you don’t count safeties coach Steve Belichick or injured-reserved linebacker Jonathan Freeny.

The trio of Scarlet Knights left on New England’s active roster reside in the secondary. And in the divisional round against the Houston Texans, each dredged memories from the Greg Schiano-coached river that ran from Piscataway to Foxborough.

It’s alive and well. Maybe not in the number of players, but in the plays. The turnovers.

Safety Devin McCourty would be the first to intercept Texans quarterback Brock Osweiler on Saturday night, undercutting wideout DeAndre Hopkins’ out route at the 7:21 mark in the third quarter and high-pointing the ball to the sideline.

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Then it was cornerback Logan Ryan’s turn, falling underneath a McCourty-defended pass intended for Hopkins with just under 13 minutes left in the fourth.

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And rounding out the group was safety Duron Harmon, who got into the mix by picking off an overthrow down the seam intended for tight end Ryan Griffin with a little over three minutes remaining. He ran it back 31 yards thenceforth.

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Three picks from one college program – Bill Belichick didn’t need to be asked about such an occurrence to address it afterwards.

“A big day for Rutgers, a big day for Rutgers,” the Patriots head coach said following the 34-16 win over Houston. “They all had interceptions. We love to see that, love to see them for anybody but especially when we get three of them. That was big.”

McCourty, Ryan and Harmon also combined for 13 tackles, one sack and two pass deflections in the process of New England advancing to the AFC Championship Game for the sixth consecutive campaign. Ryan did the heavy lifting in the latter two categories, bringing down Houston’s signal-caller for a five-yard loss and knocking down two third-down passes while allowing only three to be completed for nine yards.

Yet all three defensive backs, in no small part due to the pressure up front, had a cohesive hand in limiting the Texans to 198 yards through the air, conceding a long of 19 yards and an average of just 4.95 yards per pass attempt.

“Really, my interception was a ball that was behind, Logan’s was a high ball,” McCourty said in his postgame press conference. “That comes from the front. That's the front causing pressure, making sure the quarterback's not just back there and feeling comfortable, that's them.”

But the trickle-down effect of the pass rush was complementary football through the second and third levels. It was on them to collect what had been dropped off, also. And they did so.

“It felt good,” Ryan, speaking with reporters in the locker room, said of his pick and consequent 23-yard return. “It was my first postseason career interception so it was big and I knew once Dev got one, I would get one and Duron always closes it out. It was a big day for Rutgers, just like we planned.”

Planned or not, Harmon would close it out in the footsteps of McCourty and Ryan. He made that known beforehand.

“It was great, I mean on the whole sideline I told them, ‘I'm going to get one, and I'm going to finish it off,’” Harmon said. “I can't let Logan and Dev get one and not me get one, so I told them I'd get one and it happened."

McCourty, Ryan and Harmon have pieced together five interceptions in the Patriots’ last six playoff games, dating back to Jan. 15, 2015 against the Baltimore Ravens. And over the course of their respective regular-season careers, they’ve tacked an additional 39 onto their resumes.

McCourty’s stands most prominent. Since arriving as a first-round cornerback in 2010, the 29-year-old has collected Pro Bowls at two positions while accruing three second-team All-Pro nods. To the left and right of the team captain reside Ryan and Harmon, members of the same Rutgers recruiting class who went No. 83 and No. 91 overall, respectively, in the 2013 draft. But all three have traveled different roads, whether it be through a position change, a benching, or going from a third-round enigma to a seldom-targeted third safety.

Each has woven continuity into the New England defensive backfield. They’ve tallied 159 starts in regular-season work alone while entering for a total of 234.

Three interceptions in the divisional round only served as a reminder.

Rutgers is still here.